Sermon preached May 5, 2019
by Rev. Jonathan B. Lee
John 21:1-14 “Sustenance in a Time of Change”
The post-Easter appearances of the resurrected Jesus continue in this morning’s gospel lesson with that familiar story of that dramatic reversal of fishing fortunes: the disciples have been out in the boat all night but at dawn they still haven’t caught a thing. From the beach, Jesus, who they don’t immediately recognize, calls out and tells them to drop their nets on the other side of the boat, and they’re soon overflowing with fish. Peter recognizes Jesus, they all come ashore and share breakfast around the fire Jesus has prepared.
I come to you this morning as a minister from the wider church, and so as much as this story speaks to you and me as individual followers of Christ, and urges us to faithfully try new things, be open to new perspectives in order to more fully experience the fullness of our connection with God, I also hear this narrative speaking to our church as it tries to keep the faith. The same exhortation by Jesus from the beach to each one of us to see and act in perhaps unfamiliar ways in order to get results applies to the Body of Christ, too, especially these days. So I want to talk with you this morning about the church: about the First Congregational Church in East Hartford, about my home church up in Suffield, about our United Church of Christ as a whole.
You don’t need me to remind you that we live in an age of intense political divide, and social injustice of all sorts, and moral relevancy, and hefty personal pressures—just the sorts of conditions we the Body of Christ are called not only to speak to, but to change, to turn around, to redeem. And yet the church doesn’t seem to have the persuasive moral voice it once did. Yes, you and I still know the story, we continue to feel and experience the good news that comes through discipleship, and we are doing good works that serve others and make a difference, as we are called to. But our compatriots, our fellow disciples in the pews beside us are fewer and fewer, and less of those outside we want to invite in seem to be listening. The culture seems to be moving in another direction and we end up thinking more about survival than transforming the world. Like the disciples in the boat, we’ve been out fishing and the results haven’t been so good lately. We who are the church are at a pivotal moment where the way forward is very unsettling and the way back won’t work. So, what are we to do? For what do we hope?
Let me back up a moment from that glum assessment of the church and tell you more about why I’m compelled to make it. I am a cradle Congregationalist, I grew up down on the Connecticut shore in Stratford, in the First Congregational Church, where I was baptized, confirmed and ordained. As a kid in the 1960s I learned in Sunday school, sang in junior and youth choir, and, in wandering around the ancient burying ground, I recognized my place among the generations of that church family. Church was at the center of my own family’s life, and my parents were not zealots. We went to worship every Sunday we were home; when I was very little, my mother took me to lunches of the Women’s Service League where I discovered my unending enthusiasm for ham salad; my friends and I eagerly looked forward to every meeting and retreat of PF, Pilgrim Fellowship, for all six years of junior and senior high. Church was at the center. As I got older, and came back into the church as a pastor, I looked back and recognized that there had been lots of involved families like mine who were there with that same enthusiastic consistency;
and that people gave money to the church not just out of obligation, but with a kind of joyful loyalty. The ministers back then were pretty much preachers, teachers and pastoral caregivers, and volunteers did most of the heavy lifting without a lot of direction.
As much I loved it, as much as it shaped me and inspired me to serve, that kind of church is no longer the norm. Yes, there are definitely places where the local church remains at the center of the community, where money is not a consuming issue, where membership is growing, and discipleship is thriving, and where mission is clearly articulated and lived out—and this church may well be one of them—but they are fewer and farther between. Currently I’m a member of the national staff of the United Church of Christ working at the Pension Boards in New York. I’m privileged to travel the country and visit pastors and congregations of the denomination promoting support of the Christmas Fund and other initiatives of the Pension Boards’ charitable arm, the United Church Board for Ministerial Assistance. And what I witness is this: many, many of our churches are, one way or another, greatly diminished from what they were 50 years ago, even 20 years ago. Churches are closing right here in Connecticut, the cost of maintaining staff and old buildings is beyond the capacity of lots of congregations, and church life just isn’t keeping pace as a priority for individuals and families. The voice and witness of our local churches to the wider culture is still being expressed, but it sure feels like not a lot of folks are listening.
Before he became the current General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, John Dorhauer wrote a book called “Beyond Resistance: The Institutional Church Meets the Postmodern World.” He is convinced that why our congregations are fading is because we’re still speaking in a voice that worked effectively up until the middle of the 20th Century, but that now we live in a postmodern age and haven’t adapted our message or our methods to the new paradigm. Shifting demographics, globalization, new cultural priorities and the rise of technology and social media have revealed more choices, more options for how to live and what to believe than we know what to do with.
In this postmodern generation, there is great skepticism about any claim to a universal truth—like “I am the way, the truth and the life.” Because so many have now grown up with television and the Internet, how we learn has shifted, too, and what definitely doesn’t seem to work anymore is a 20-minute monologue like this sermon. And given the recent mixed record of many institutions that were so fully trusted not long ago—like the government—lots of folks distrust and are less likely to support institutions that claim authority over others—including the church.
The fact is, traditions and practices and social norms that were pervasive even as recently as when I was a kid, don’t hold sway anymore. I’m only 58 but there are times when I already feel like a curmudgeon, cranky that “things aren’t the way they used to be,” actually thinking we’d all be better off if we went back to church life the way it was at the First Congregational Church of Stratford in 1967. But that horse is already long out of the barn, we’re not going back. So, to a postmodern wilderness, how is the God of Jesus Christ calling us, right now, to cry out? How do we find our new ecclesiastical voice, a faithful witness that reaches a postmodern generation?
That is a question custom made for this topsy-turvy season in American culture. And as we remember moments when the church’s efforts filled the nets to overflowing, and then wonder what happened, I see real reasons to hope, hope that the church can and will wake up and live again more fully as the Body of Christ.
First of all, in my travels I witness such diversity of faithful expression, of the ways in which local congregations of the UCC do their thing. Your sister churches in Hawaii and Missouri
and even Pennsylvania look and feel both very familiar and very different. I love our traditions and our history here, but our God moves, thankfully, in distinctly non-New England ways, too. What I see consistently is that our churches share an essential attribute. From the beginning our denomination’s history has been rooted in inclusivity—of women, of racial and ethnic minorities, of refugees, of the differently abled, of the LGBTQ community, and I’m sure is the case here in First Church in East Hartford, of seekers from other traditions. If any church can speak genuinely to the ocean of permutations represented in our postmodern culture, it’s us. So, when opportunities come to welcome those with whom we live and work and socialize, we have to raise our voice. And you here in East Hartford have done that in a big and visible way in declaring this to be an Open and Affirming congregation—never underestimate the welcoming power of that statement. It says volumes about your correct understanding of the gospel.
Another sign of hope: we’re also beginning to recognize that to be agile and relevant, our churches need new kinds of leaders to voice the good news effectively. 20 years ago, some studies were indicating that, across denominations, nearly 50% of all clergy entering the ministry were leaving the church altogether within 5 years of their first call to a local congregation. Why? Because the seminary training that worked 30 years ago isn’t nearly enough to prepare leaders for today’s congregations. I said before that the ministers in my childhood were preachers, teachers, and pastoral caregivers. But today’s pastors really also function as CEOs of nonprofits, community organizers, social media experts, general contractors and organizational strategists managing often dysfunctional systems. Recognizing this, the Pension Boards began a program called the Next Generation Leadership Initiative, or NGLI.
NGLI is all about equipping the most promising ministers under the age of 35 in our entire denomination with skills to be effective, transformational leaders of congregations in a time when local churches are anything but predictable, in an age when what constitutes effective pastoral leadership is shifting dramatically and in a denomination where 80% of ordained ministers are 50 years old or older. NGLI pastors learn things like organizational dynamics, and family systems theory, communications and social media strategies, and how to keep themselves from being sucked into or burned out by the unhealthy situations that sometimes happen in congregational life, especially in congregations that are stressed. I spend time with NGLI pastors and all of them are high-energy, high-competence, high-hopefulness; they have strong voices that reverberate in that postmodern wilderness. The good news is that the Holy Spirit, though efforts like NGLI, is shaping the new kinds of leaders our churches need, and we should take heart.
Something else hopeful gleaned from my church travels: despite familiar refrains of budget shortfalls and diminished giving, there is plenty of money in our United Church of Christ to support revitalized, relevant mission of effective local churches. The challenge is, first, that we need to speak openly about sharing our wealth as a function of discipleship and an opportunity to experience a joy that comes with investing in mission that really matters, and honestly, most current charitable giving is crumbs in comparison to all we hold; and, secondly, we need to think creatively about the best use of our congregational resources. The mission of so many of our churches is being dragged down by rivers of dollars directed toward maintaining expensive old buildings, and endowments that, while being utilized in fiscally responsible ways, to be sure, really are only enabling many congregations to tread water year to year. There is real urgency for our congregations to revisit and rethink our attitudes about money, but, again, there is reason to hope.
So… as members of local churches, what can you and I continue to do to make our collective voice to the world be heard again? To reveal a resurrected church to a world that needs
us? It begins, and I confess this a particular challenge of mine, with drinking sparingly from the cup of nostalgia. The church of my youth, and probably yours, isn’t coming back the way it was. There is good history there, though, worth celebrating, and for us in the United Church of Christ it is particularly our history of welcome and inclusivity that is the most relevant and meaningful story we have to tell and act out, and one we begin to make through the persistence of our invitations and the warmth of our welcomes.
We can recognize that the demands on our clergy are not only all they were 50 years ago, but twice as much on top of that, and that congregational awareness and expectations of what ministers do need to evolve, and solid leadership in a new wilderness is worth the investment. And we can unclench a bit when it comes to conversations about money and wealth and how sustainable our current financial habits are. Money does not have to be the rate-limiting step in our life together, or in our efforts in getting the good news out to others. If we can do these kinds of things, I am hopeful our churches can become, in new ways, the effective voice of good news for those who need it—a thirst deeper than we know.
But the best reason to have hope for these churches we love, for this congregation, for mine, is that we’ve been here before, and God has found a way. Since that moment in the boat and on the beach so long ago God’s will has continued to be revealed to disciples in new ways, to open eyes and hearts to see and then do what’s most important, to resurrect again and again what is most precious in this mortal life we have been given. And that we are here today, gathered as we are as the church 20 centuries later, wrestling with our own pressing matters of discipleship, is witness that God has pushed us to move when we most wanted to be comfortable, that God has evolving purpose and directions for us beyond the constrictions that can sometimes dominate our local church attention.
So, whether we want churches that live and thrive and change lives, or peace in our nation or the world, or peace in our souls, or cures for all those things that afflict us in this Spring of 2019, we have solid reason to hope. You here in East Hartford are already on your way. By the grace of God, may you continue forward, ready to try new approaches to old fishing habits that fits for this time and place, and may your life together be a witness to others who need to experience that same good news. May it be so, and may it be soon.